In 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in the fledgling United States of America at a gathering that became known as the Christmas Conference. This year, The United Methodist Church, descendant of that first denomination, faces a Christmas of spiritual, if not yet structural, disintegration.
Confronted with that dismal prospect, a group of visionaries has called on Methodism’s innovative spirit and God’s Holy Spirit in a quest to create a new United Methodist Church from within.
Before the coronavirus pandemic forced the postponement of the UMC’s global legislative assembly known as General Conference, a group of delegates began conversations about how to fashion United Methodism without splitting it apart. After General Conference was pushed back to 2021, the delegates’ conversation gained traction and an unofficial group, Out of Chaos – Creation was born.
From its outset, Out of Chaos organizers have been firm on one point: They want to transform The United Methodist Church, not tear it apart.
From its outset, Out of Chaos organizers have been firm on one point: They want to transform The United Methodist Church, not tear it apart. Its organizers speak lovingly of the many good works that United Methodists perform around the world, coupled with a tradition of personal piety fostered by Methodism’s founder, John Wesley.
The group’s stance reflects similar approaches taken by the Connectional Table, the official United Methodist ministry coordinating agency, and an ad hoc group of United Methodists outside the United States who’ve crafted a unity proposal called The Christmas Covenant. While some of its organizers also work with the Connectional Table or support The Christmas Covenant, Out of Chaos is an independent collection of people who fund its activities out of their own pockets.
Out of Chaos participants also stress that they don’t intend unity solely for the sake of institutional preservation. The group’s organizers say they want to carry forward the best of United Methodism in ways that suit 21st century needs.
To that end, Out of Chaos has sponsored discussions at grassroots levels in an effort to hear from United Methodists in pew and pulpit who don’t get to take part in heated, winner-take-all General Conference debates about legislation.
Out of Chaos held its first information-gathering webinars in July, followed by a second set of webinars Dec. 1. On both dates, two sessions were held at different times to provide for participation by United Methodists in as many time zones as possible around the world.
Many international United Methodists see any potential church split as an American conflict that won’t benefit United Methodists in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
High levels of international participation distinguish Out of Chaos from both the newly formed progressive denomination, Liberation Methodist Connexion, and the nascent denomination being formed by the conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association. After decades of American-dominated church politics, many international United Methodists see any potential church split as an American conflict that won’t benefit United Methodists in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
For example, Christine Schneider of Zurich, a delegate from the Switzerland-France-North Africa Annual Conference, moderated the Dec. 1 webinars. She told UM News that her experiences as a General Conference delegate were “some of her worst times as a United Methodist” because political wrangling about legislation overshadowed more reasoned discussions.
Clergywoman Kennetha Bigham-Tsai said Dec. 1 that so far, eight groups, including some delegates, have held discussions using the “Out of Chaos” study guide. Some 60 individual United Methodists have responded to an internet survey published in English, French and German, which will remain online until Dec. 31.
After that, Out of Chaos plans to create a “vision map” based on participants’ responses.
In response to a participant during one of the Dec. 1 webinars, Bigham-Tsai reiterated that Out of Chaos isn’t promoting any legislative proposal about the UMC’s future, including the Christmas Covenant or the “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.”
The Protocol, as it is known, is an independently negotiated unofficial agreement to divide United Methodism, mediated in late 2019 among representatives of various UMC factions. It’s being promoted heavily by the Wesleyan Covenant Association because it proposes the UMC give $25 million over four years as start-up money for a “traditionalist” denomination. The Protocol also provides for $2 million to seed a “progressive” denomination, a financial disparity that has drawn protests from the UMC’s liberal wing.
Legislation to enact the Protocol was to have been voted upon at the postponed 2020 General Conference, but at least one Out of Chaos leader said he doubted the agreement was still a viable alternative.
“I can’t see why we would bring any legislation written 18 months ago to the 2021 General Conference,” said Jay Williams, senior pastor of Union UMC in Boston. “We want to live into a newness of vision for the church.”
General Conference has been rescheduled to Aug. 29-Sept. 7, 2021, but the continuing coronavirus pandemic has cast doubt on those dates. In the meantime, Out of Chaos organizers say their vision map, expected by March 2021, isn’t the final word on designing a new United Methodist Church from within.
“It won’t be a final statement; this is a vision in process,” said Christine Schneider, the Dec. 1 moderator.
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the worldwide United Methodist Church at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.
This story was made possible by gifts to the Mark Wingfield Fund for Interpretive Journalism.